- OnStage Massachusetts Critic
Merrimack Repertory Theatre sets the bar extremely high for their 39th Season with the New England Premiere of the award-winning boxing drama “The Royale”. The play, written by Marco Ramirez, is inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first black man to fight for the title of World Heavyweight Champion. First premiering in 2013, this play won numerous awards including Obie and Drama Desk with an Off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center. MRT’s production is smartly staged and directed by the company’s Director in Residence Megan Sandberg-Zakian.
When I walked into the theatre on opening weekend, I was not sure what to expect from a drama concentrated around the sport of boxing. I was intrigued for sure; as I am sure many in the audience were as well. As the play began and the first “fight” started at the sound of the bell, I was amazed at the decision to have the actors fight towards the audience rather than toss fake punches at each other. The lines we hear are the thoughts going through their heads as they give and receive hit after hit. The choreographed theatricality of their boxing and the focus on rhythm and timing was marvelous to watch. From the first round, I was hooked.
The cast features five incredible actors all making their MRT debut in this production. Jay, whose character is based on Jack Johnson, is passionately and intuitively performed by Thomas Silcott. He portrayed his character’s many layers with conviction and laser focus. With every scene we saw a different side of Jay and we began to understand his motivations. His friend and trainer, Wynton, was played by Jeorge Bennett Watson. He easily reminded me of a real boxing trainer with his commitment to the sport and to his star athlete. Fish, Jay’s opponent turned sparring partner, was strongly portrayed by Toran White. He played the younger boxer with fresh, optimistic energy. During his first match with Jay, White’s facial expressions and his delivery of his character’s inner thoughts and feelings were perfectly timed. The chemistry between Silcott and White was fantastic and the rivalry turned friendship they portrayed as their characters was very easy to believe. Max, Jay’s booking agent and announcer, was played by Mark W. Soucy. His character’s relationship and interactions with Jay, Wynton and Fish, received numerous audience chuckles at times, yet in other moments, got us thinking about the reality of social norms in the early 1900’s and how blacks and whites were very much segregated and seen as unequal. Lastly, the sole female in the show, playing Nina, Jay’s sister, was Ramona Lisa Alexander. Though her scenes with Jay came late in the show, her performance was nothing short of powerful and deeply emotional. Alexander and Silcott were believable and showed a strong bond as brother and sister. Their final scene had the audience fully captivated and I dare say there were few dry eyes in the house. This cast as a whole was exceptionally strong and in sync.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the performances by the cast, the technical aspects of this production were also very impressive. The scenic design by Lawrence Moten was detailed, but sparse with a raised platform that served as the boxing ring and a punching bag hanging from above. Karen Perlow’s lighting design played off the set nicely. Her use of special spot lights that focused on the boxers in the ring showcased the performers and the creative way they brought their matches to life. The intricate sound design was created by David Remedios and the costumes were designed by Miranda Kau Giurleo. The fight choreography was designed by Kyle Vincent Terry.
Both the technical and performance elements of this play were impeccably well done. Though I didn’t go into the show with expectations, I found myself completely blown away by what I had witnessed. And I am sure I wasn’t the only one based on how quickly the audience stood for a robust and lengthy ovation at the close of the performance. This production is a must see this fall and I believe it to be one of the best plays of 2017! ©
This 80-minute production runs with no intermission. “The Royale” plays at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack Street Lowell, MA, until October 8th, 2017. Tickets range from $73-$26 with discounts available for groups, students, seniors, Lowell residents, and military service members. To purchase tickets or find more information visit www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678. Photo Credit: Toran White, Mark W. Soucy, and Thomas Silcott. Photo by Meghan Moore.
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